Before 1900


Uses of 'Mars' and 'canals' vs uses of 'Mars' only in peer-reviewed astronomical articles, 1861-1970

So, to wrap up this accidental series. To check whether professional astronomical journals displayed the same patterns in discussing 'Mars' and 'canals' as the more popular/amateur ones I again looked at the peak decade 1891-1900, this time selecting only the more serious, respected journals. However, because of the French problem I had to exclude L'Astronomie and Ciel et Terre (the former was apparently more popular anyway). So for my top three I ended up with Astronomische Nachrichten, Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (PASP) and Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (MNRAS). Astronomische Nachrichten ('astronomical notes') was the leading astronomical journal of the 19th century, founded 1821. It published articles in a number of languages including English. Fulltext Service seems to be multilingual, as it picks up the German (at least) equivalents of Mars/Martian and canal/canals. That doesn't help with the French problem, but that will only affect a small minority of Astronomische Nachrichten's articles. The Astronomical Society of the Pacific was founded in California as a joint amateur-professional organisation. Its PASP is now a very highly regarded journal, although I must admit I don't know if this was always the case. MNRAS is the journal of the Royal Astronomical Society in Britain. It also happens to be where my solitary peer-reviewed astronomy article was published (and when I say 'my', I think approximately 1 sentence relates to research I actually undertook), but even so it really is a highly-respected journal.
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In my post about the lingering scientific interest in the Martian canals hypothesis after 1909, I said that there was a problem with journal coverage. What do I mean by this? Have a look:

Uses of 'Mars' and 'canals' in peer-reviewed astronomical articles

This is a repeat of the first plot in the previous post, showing the number of articles published in peer-reviewed astronomical journals mentioning 'Mars' and 'canals' between 1861 and 1970, only this time for each of three journals: Observatory, Journal of the British Astronomical Association, and Popular Astronomy. I chose these three because they were the journals which had the most such articles, both over the entire period and in the peak decade of the 1890s.
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Uses of 'Mars' and 'canals' in peer-reviewed astronomical articles

In a recent, hmm, let's call it a discussion resulting from an old post I wrote about the US Air Force's one-time interesting in mapping Mars, I tried to assess how scientific interest in the Martian canals hypothesis lingered after the early 20th century, and said I would run up some figures to illustrate the data. So here they are.

My source is the ADSLabs Fulltext Service. ADS is the Astrophysical Data System, an online database of articles published in astronomy and physics journals. Which doesn't sound so amazing these days, but it was in 1994 when I first used it! (More on its history here.) The interface has changed remarkably little since then, but it is still free and very comprehensive. While it is primarily an abstract service, fulltext is available for many older articles -- but only as non-searchable images. Moreover, not all articles have abstracts. However, the text of articles from most of the major journals have been OCRed into a parallel database, the Fulltext Service. Like the classic ADS Abstract Service, this was not designed with historians in mind, but it's still quite useful.
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If the threat from Germans outside Australia during the First World War was small, the threat from Germans inside Australia was non-existent. There is no credible evidence at all of any espionage, subversion or sabotage activities by German-Australians. But you wouldn't know it from the way the Australian people and their government behaved. It's not an episode that does the nation credit.

Before the war, the German community in Australia was generally liked and respected. People of German descent numbered around 100,000 in 1914, out of a population of nearly 5 million. That's not very much in relative terms, though it did constitute the largest non-British ethnic group of immigrants. Most of the German-born had lived here for decades: they started coming in numbers in 1838, with the greatest surge coming in the gold rush years of the 1850s. So by the time Germany and Australia went to war, many German-Australians were third-generation and had never seen the country of their forebears. That's not to say they didn't have a distinctive culture: a majority of them were Lutherans, there were German-language newspapers, and they often clustered in 'German' districts and towns, especially in South Australia and Queensland. But the evidence is that they felt they were Australian, and while they were understandably distressed by the outbreak of war, most German-Australians wanted to do their part and were confused when other Australians turned against them.
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The RAF Displays held at Hendon between 1920 and 1937 were unique, in that no other air force attempted to project a vision of itself, its capabilities and its responsibilities in so public a way, on such a large scale and over such a long period. Of course, that's largely because there weren't many air forces around. Or rather, they did exist, but not independently of their nation's army and navy. Putting on such a big show was important for the RAF precisely because it was newborn: it needed to convince everyone (parliamentarians, journalists, the public, the other services, other nations) that it was necessary and/or that it was successful. Hendon seemed to have fulfilled this very well, judging by press attention and attendance numbers.

But viewed another way, the RAF Displays weren't unprecedented at all. Both the British Army and the Royal Navy had their own forms of public display. The Army had long performed in public, in fact, such ceremonies as trooping the colours, and the 19th century witnessed a huge growth in the popularity of military reviews, according to Scott Hughes Myerly 'the most popular and elaborate public manifestation of the military spectacle':

The action on the field consisted of evolutions of drill, musket volleys with blanks, and cannon salutes. Often a sham battle or mock, siege would be staged between two opposing units, or a bayonet or cavalry charge would be a part of the show.1

I'm not sure of the actual content of these mock battles, though the fact they they were performed during the Napoleonic Wars suggests an obvious ideological function. For its part, the Navy also developed fleet reviews into what Jan Rüger has termed 'a new form of public theatre'.2 This happened much later in the century, however, dramatically increasing in frequency after the review held for Victoria in 1887 on the occasion of her golden jubilee. By their nature, naval reviews afforded fewer opportunities for presenting narratives of actual combat. There were some, though, for example a 'mock-attack carried out by torpedo boats and submarines' at the 1909 Spithead review.3 Like the RAF later, and doubtless the Army before it, the Navy rather dubiously insisted that these were not mere spectacles but training for war.

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  1. Scott Hughes Myerly, '"The eye must entrap the mind": army spectacle and paradigm in nineteenth-century Britain', Journal of Social History 26 (1992), 105-31, at 106. 

  2. Jan Rüger, The Great Naval Game: Britain and Germany in the Age of Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 24. 

  3. Ibid., 26. 

In the venerable tradition of lazyblogging, here is a storified version of an exchange of tweets today between myself and @TroveAustralia, concerning an apparently forgotten Australian aviation pioneer, W. T. Carter of Williamstown, formerly a member of the Victorian colonial legislature. In the mid-1890s, Carter dabbled in electric motors (with help from A. U. Alcock, who has been credited with inventing an ancestor of the hovercraft) and propellors (later patenting one in Britain), and seems in 1894 to have successfully demonstrated a flying model, a small drum-shaped object with two propellors at each end. Long after his death it was claimed that he had actually built and flown an aeroplane at Maidstone, a western suburb of Melbourne, again in the mid-1890s, but it's hard to believe this could have escaped the attention of the press (especially given his evident interest in self-promotion).
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'The Hum' is a mysterious low-frequency sound just at the edge of hearing which seems to infect some places, but which only some people can detect. What causes it is unknown -- theories range from factories and air conditioners to gravitational waves -- and responsible authorities often deny that it exists at all. The most famous example from recent times is probably the Taos Hum from New Mexico, which seems to date to the 1990s, but the Bristol Hum in the UK was apparently around in the 1960s and featured in the national press in the 1970s. Before that, questions were asked in Parliament (one question, anyway) about a hum heard in East Kent; and there was the Manchester 'hummadruz' which was discussed in the local press in the 1870s but was heard in the 1820s; and Gilbert White heard something similar (though louder) at Selborne in the 18th century. I think there's enough evidence to suggest that something is going on, though whether the Hum is a real sound or just something human psychology tends to come up with time and again is debatable.

Here's an example I haven't been able to find a reference to: the London Hum during the Second World War. The following is from Philip Ziegler's London at War, from a chapter discussing the mid-war years so 1942 or 1943:

The absence of traffic, together with the rarity of raids, should have given Londoners some precious silence, but from all over the capital came complaints of a mystery noise which seemed to emanate from the same area but was curiously hard to track down. 'Not only is there almost incessant "hum",' complained Gwladys Cox, 'but a "shaking", for want of a better word; at night my very bed vibrates and I feel intermittent stiff "jerks".' One indignant victim pursued the matter with the police, the Home Office and the Ministry of Health, but got no satisfaction. Eventually he decided he had identified the culprit, a factory in west London, but was met with a bland assertion that, though they might be making a little too much noise, this was unavoidable in view of the essential war work on which they were engaged. So far as it could be established, the testing of aero-engines was responsible.1

Unfortunately, Ziegler doesn't provide citations (though Gwladys Cox was a civilian diarist living in West Hampstead; her diary is held at the Imperial War Museum). A quick search of wartime newspapers doesn't throw up any obvious references to a London hum, but Ziegler's account suggests it was a widely experienced phenomenon. Perhaps the unusual lack of traffic noises made other sounds more noticeable; perhaps the habit of listening for bombers made people more sensitive to sounds they'd usually block out. Either way, I wonder why it seems to have slipped through the cracks of memory.

  1. Philip Ziegler, London at War 1939-1945 (London: Pimlico, 2002), 244. 


Let's turn now to Tolkien's The Hobbit and Smaug's attack on Lake-town (Esgaroth).1 In my PhD thesis I identified six characteristics of the ideal theory of the knock-out blow from the air: it would be a surprise attack, on a large scale, which would strike at the interdependent structures and civilian morale of its targets, and would wreak massive destruction with great speed. In the 1920s and 1930s, fictional and non-fictional predictions of victory through airpower would usually feature four or five out of these six. As I'll now show, The Hobbit has four: surprise, morale, speed, destruction. Of course, Lake-town isn't a modern, industrial society, nor is Smaug a technologically advanced enemy nation, so the fit isn't going to be perfect. It doesn't need to be, though.

There being so many editions of The Hobbit, it seems a bit pointless to cite page numbers here, but all my quotes come from chapter XIV, 'Fire and Water'.2
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  1. Cf. Janet Brennan Croft, War and the Works of J. R. R. Tolkien (Westport and London: Praeger, 2004), 112-3, for another analysis of military themes in this part of The Hobbit, suggesting that Bard's organisation of the defences is more suggestive of a modern infantry officer than a dark ages hero. 

  2. The actual copy I'm using is a 1984 edition I read as a boy, a hardcover with beautiful illustrations by Michael Hague


I've been remiss in not noting the arrival of Military History Carnival #28 at Cliopatria. While it seems to be moving from a round-up of the best military history blogging to covering 'military history on the Internet' generally, there are still some good old-fashioned blogs therein. For example, Sellswords, mercenaries and condottieri presents a fascinating examination of the question: what was the reason for the inaccuracy of early modern firearms -- 'In other words, did soldiers use their firearms to its full potential?'

What I found particularly interesting were the details of experiments into musket accuracy conducted in the 18th century. For example:

Hanoverian experiments in 1790 showed that when fired at various ranges against a representative target (a placard 1.8 m high and up to 45 m long for infantry, 2.6 m high for cavalry) the following results were achieved: at 100 meters – 75% bullets hit infantry target, 83.3% cavalry, at 200 m – 37.5% and 50%, at 300 m – 33.3% and 37.5% respectively.

This statistical approach to thinking about combat seems close to what we would now call operational research, which has its origins in Britain in the Second World War (Bomber Command), the First World War (anti-aircraft gunnery), or maybe Charles Babbage's day (postal delivery), depending on who you talk to. But from my (admittedly limited) understanding of the methods of operational research, it probably could have arisen any time after the development of probability theory in the 17th century. The interest of 18th-century militaries in getting answers to questions susceptible to statistical analysis suggests that the impetus was there, so why didn't it happen sooner? For that matter (and it's a question I keep coming back to), why didn't the RAF develop them in conjunction with the bomber?


The Scareship Age, 1892-1946

A couple of months ago, Alun Salt did a very nice thing for me: he unexpectedly assembled some of the posts I've written here about phantom airships into an e-book. Using that as the basis, I've had a go at learning how to do e-books myself. (Alun recommended using Jutoh, an e-book project manager, and I'm glad he did.) So I've tweaked things a bit; added a few of the recent phantom airship posts I've written recently, played with the cover image, and the result is The Scareship Age, 1892-1946, available in the two most common e-book formats: EPUB, an open format, and MOBI, the format used by Amazon's Kindle. You can download them here, from the Downloads page, or from the sidebar on Airminded's front page. They are of course free, as in Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported.

I have tried this sort of thing before, with my Sudeten crisis posts, but that was as a PDF which is not really suited for e-books; and with all the images it turned out to be quite bloated at 5.6 Mb. The Scareship Age comes in at 0.5 Mb for the EPUB and 0.9 Mb for the MOBI, which is much better. Now that I have a better idea about how e-books work, I'll have another go at the Sudeten crisis. But not now!